Tutus in Paris


I came to live in Paris without social connections in 1977 after having lived for six months hanging out in Mexico. 


I quickly found out that walking into an art gallery opening (vernissage in French) in St Germain, the Art District on the Left Bank, around 19.00 was the best place to meet interesting people.

I picked a known Russian artist's vernissage, put my best foot forward one Wednesday evening and off I strode a little nervous as I knew almost no one in the capital of culture. 

I knew nothing of the Art World but recognised professionalism. Mihail Chemiakin was a professional. The gallery was packed so much that one could hardly see his paintings. Tired and alone in a crowd, I sat down on a sofa next to a distinguished looking older gentleman who was looking bored and detached.

'What do you think of the paintings?'I asked innocently in French. He glanced at me sideways uninterested until he heard my obvious English accent. Then he perked up explaining he had lived in London for many years in the 1950s as Baron's photographic assistant. Baron who died in 1965 had been the famous London Society's photographer.  He rose and took me in hand introducing me to his friend the artist that Tout Paris was talking about.  He insisted on speaking English and introduced himself as Genia from Moscow, a Russian Emigre. Never had I met one before or for that matter since!  

I confided in him that I had just arrived in Paris and was living in Montparnasse in Rue Campagne Premiere. I was thus informed that Modigliani had had his studio in the same street where he committed suicide by throwing himself out of his studio window!  Genia of course was knowledgeable in the Arts!

Being my protector for the evening and, as it was early, he suggested we should pay a visit to Willy Maywald the German fashion photographer at his studio in Rue de la Grande Chaumiere, Montparnasse who hosted Salons on Wednesdays and Saturdays. He went to make a phone call to double check asking the person who answered if 'it' was on. Yes come' was the reply and so off we went into the night walking and chatting about art and photography which I knew, in those days, nothing about! I had come to Paris to be educated. And educated I was over the coming years!

We arrived at Willy's studio hidden at the end of a secret charming garden tucked away in a street with a famous art school, around the corner from 'Le Select' on Boulevard Montparnasse which was to become my second home. Genia opened the unlocked door and we entered another world.

There was Willy on his couch in an original artist's studio with a high glass roof, his photographic portraits adorning the walls surrounded by Spanish Transvestites wearing shocking pink tutus!!! Well not all of them. Some had evening dresses on in garish colours wearing wigs and heavy makeup.  Everyone laughing and speaking Spanish so I joined in as I already spoke the language. The trannies were all shapes and sizes and we realised we had gatecrashed a private birthday party!

Willy rose to greet me in English with a guttural accent.  'Genia, you've come on the wrong night! Bring Jilliana on a Saturday, I think she would prefer that!' He smiled at me knowingly. A charming talented man who was later to be rediscovered by Jutta Neiman at the end of his long life as a great black and white portrait and fashion photographer. But Willy and his Saturday Salons are for another Vignette.

Genia, after a short while, suggested we leave as he had just been propositioned on his way to the bathroom. He assured me that women were his preference.

We left and he accompanied me to my nearby flat at 23 Rue Compagne Premiere. However he hovered at the door waiting to be invited in for who knows what saying that he was looking for a relationship. I thanked him for the evening and we agreed to meet on Saturday for the Salon. But made certain that he understand that there would not be a 'relationship'.

Willy Maywald, the fashion photographer of  Dior's 'New Look', was the catalyst for my 'New life' in Paris although he never knew how his Saturday Salons would educate me giving me the self confidence I lacked and leading me to find my Identity. 

Brighton April 2015.